Posted on November 25, 2015
I just spent the past 5 or 6 days facilitating a working group of people from 7 different cultures working in 4 distinct regions of the world and it was a great experience.
It was a time of strategising for common goals that would be achieved in each of our different cultural contexts, and even a few that were not represented within our group. These strategic group contexts can be hugely challenging (I know from personal experience). Two years ago I facilitated the same working group process (with mostly different people) and it was one of the worst leadership experiences I’ve ever had. Multiple times I felt like we were moving one step forward and then ten steps back; the group hopped around and couldn’t agree to a strategy and wording, and I completely lost control of the role I was given. I spent multiple times with my head in my hands up in my hotel room despairing for how I could lead the group in a way that would actually achieve anything like what we had set out to do.
This time was different, partly because that last time was so hard. I have given lots of reflection time over the last 2 years to that experience. It was also different because I’ve simply had more practise at facilitating groups. Finally, I think I have a much clearer understanding of how my values (which include thinking well, valuing people, and setting practical goals) actually get fleshed out in real life rather than just ideals in my head.
Here are a few things I learned (most the hard way) in the two years between the two experiences facilitating group processes;
1) People need to feel like People
Many of the people who we gathered with both times did not know each other well. Both times we were extremely pressed for focussed strategising time. Last time I monologued with vagary about what it was we were there to do, and then we hopped to it. I didn’t spend time helping people feel valued, and we didn’t cultivate enough relationship to get the task done. This time I used, even the short time we had, to go round, hear from each person what their context was, some things they had left behind to be there, something they needed prayer for to fully focus, and had someone who knew them in the group commend them briefly to us.
Secondly, all strategising process have a number of pain points; whether you invest some hours into an idea only to realise it isn’t worthwhile after all, or you get caught up in complexity and lose perspective, it becomes harder than you thought when you started out. People need to hear that you know that it is hard and that they are doing a good job.
Finally, everyone could have chosen to be somewhere else. Don’t ever lose the perspective that it is an honour that they would give their time, energy and focus (in our context without even getting paid for it) to work on this common goal together. Remember to thank people, value and recognise their contributions.
2) Share the rules up front and don’t apologise for leading
The biggest mistake I made last time was allowing a green-light thinking environment (an any-idea-goes) for too long. In my high value for having consensus and getting all the voices to be heard and find agreement, I let the process stay broad for way too long. Many of the people in our group last time were older and more experienced. I felt apologetic to make tough decisions and take leadership of the group.
Most of you reading this will not act like a professional facilitator who gets brought in from the outside to solely facilitate a process. More than likely you will be leading something that you have opinions about, responsibility for, but on an issue that it is important to get group input, ownership and participation in. Be clear about what is open for discussion and what is a non-negotiable for you. I used to feel much guiltier about articulating non-negotiable’s than I do now, now I realise it is far more honest to say upfront if there is something I feel strongly about that is within my leadership oversight.
Because this time the time we had was so short, there were moments where I had to ask us not pursue a line of conversation in order to focus on outcomes and becoming concrete. The times this worked best was when I asked at the beginning of the sessions whether everyone agreed to me asking us to move on if I felt like we were getting side-tracked and needed to make decisions. Outside of the emotional moment where someone was making a point they wanted to hold on to, everyone finds it reasonable that a facilitator can move you on, and so it gave me license to keep the group in momentum without anyone feeling that it was personal because it was their thought.
3) Narrate the process
People need to recognise the end goal up front. Even if you can’t articulate anything about the content, defining the type of end goal you want is important. So for example, ours was; These will be concrete do-able (by the people in this room) strategies which will have goals to be completed within 2 years. Every session I re-articulated that this is where we were going together. I also drew a funnel going from wider idea-collecting through to final action plans. A few times in the middle or towards the end of the time I drew a timeline marking a few dots of things we had accomplished and showing that we were often closer to an end goal that many of us felt. Strategic planning can feel like getting lost in a dense wood, so helping people at the beginning of a session getting a birds eye view is important. Finally, you may have some outside influences change the nature of your work, another working group or leaders over you, it is important to share these changes, but to also emphasise what has stayed the same. This helps people feel like they didn’t get pushed back to square one.
These may sound like gimmicky tactics, but it is incredible how helpful they are in creating a sense of trajectory, safety and momentum.
4) Break up into Smaller groups
Last time I had a group of 24. That is simply insane. This time around I attempted to limit it to 9, we ended up at 11. This worked well, but because the subject we worked on was something everyone felt strongly about (it includes the core motivation and outcome that our group is gathered around in the first place) we had to create smaller forums of discussion. In any group over 4 or 5 around 20% of the people will naturally feel more confident to contribute. I have observed that especially europeans (of which I am one) and north americans feel the most permission to voice opinion and disagree where africans and asians will often only raise their voices to help create consensus but will rarely articulate an opposing opinion or new idea in a larger group. Those are, of course, generalisations, but I have seen them play out a number of times now.
This dynamic is also true for external vs internal processors. Internal processors ironically speak less, but what they speak has been well processed internally. External processors (which is the group I lean more into) need to verbalise it to really know what they think (these, by very nature not well processed ideas). Once you get smaller groups (3 is a good number), you create more safety, more opportunity for airtime. Those from cultural background who feel more permission to make their voice heard and those who externally process still need to be encouraged to draw out those from more harmony-based cultures and internal processors.
Do you have a 5th thing you would add from your experience of facilitating group discussions or planning sessions? I’d love to hear it? Or maybe you have a question about facilitation, I’d love to interact with you in the comments..
Posted on November 22, 2015
4:30am and we land in Istanbul airport into a flurry of activity. The airport buzzes like the brain activity of the city, gaining movement and energy before the eyes open and the day begins.
We stand blearily picking up boarding passes for the next flight in 17 hours, a mammoth layover is ahead. Somehow in these early hours after a longhaul flight you feel 20 years older than you really are, and can easily imagine the sense some of the elderly purport to have of being ‘tired of life’.
To the counter at our right a tired romaine French-speaking lady with more make-up than is healthy at her age, exacerbatedly argues with the only attendant who can speak french back to her.
I turn to try and get assurance that we don’t have to pick up our bags as I imagine them circling the carousel alone inviting any chancing thief. Something about travelling with a bag endears you to the ownership of it. It is not the value of it or even that it constitutes the majority of your earthly possessions but it carries an emotional weight. Like a left over imprint from the child hood chastisement to remember to bring home your lunch box.
The customer service rep plucks up his broken high school english to say a single word; “automatic”. Somehow his english ability leaves me less than assured of our bags safe arrival. Oh well, faith I suppose. Air travel seems like one protracted act of faith – faith the airline won’t go out of business in between the booking and the flying, faith that you will get to the airport on time, faith the overhead lockers won’t spontaneous choose to give in after their years of heavy lifting on your head, faith that the wings will continue to serve the laws of physics, faith the plane food was prepared in a way that won’t leave you vomitting, faith the background hum of an announcement in a language you don’t understand isn’t calmy narrating your coming demise, and now faith that your bags are entrusted to the nether regions of an airport logistical operation more complex and yet fragile than you realise. Faith that somehow, independent of your involvement but attached to your progress, your bags will end up coming out of the humble orephus at your destination with the plastic flaps and present itself back to you.
By this time the exasperation of our romaine French-speaking friend has found its pinnacle, there is open shouting and what was obscured by my own poorly maintained ability to hear french, is made clear in the broken english where we discover the last 30mins of anger and frustration revolve around validating a parking ticket.
Onwards and upwards, we head towards passport control. Serving at a passport control desk at 5am must really have you reflecting on life decisions, how ever much passion you have for stamping. I smile in that tired but eager way I imagine they have seen countless times to now render it a default expression. Wanting to seem warm enough to assure them “I don’t wish your country any harm”, but not overly try-hard in a way that may arouse suspicion that I somehow have a connection to norwegian terrorism.
And Freedom. Out past ‘nothing to declare’ and over to the familiar hotel desk I’ve been to before. Within another 30mins an over priced starbucks granola pot is consumed, whilst our bodies shrug the strangeness of eating food at what seems like 8 hours earlier thanks to our recent transition of time zones.
Two near eastern looking gents join our school-like queue for the bus. One clearly encourgaing the other to play the part of interpreter to ask us where we are from. What comes next is unexpected, his friend (who must be in his early 50’s) urges him to say something that comes out so jarring it doesn’t seem likely to have been his first intention. “Your face is nice”, they both grin happily at me as I scan the phrase for any undertones of disrepute. I’m standing next to my wife, who at least in my experience is more likely to receive this kind of boyish affection in this region of the world. But there they are, grinning at me, so I’m left to do the only appropriate british thing in this cross-cultural moment, thank them and hope the whole thing becomes quickly forgotten. Fortunately that was the last adventure into the english language my tongue tied yet affectionate friend made in our time together.
Arriving into an awkwardly out of place baroque entrance, I realise Istanbul is not feeling as cold as it should at 7am on a november morning. As we drove through the streets I thought how strange it is that despite knowing no-one here and almost entirely due to these types of flight layovers this city feels positively familiar. We passed another hotel we remember staying in for a night, and the skyscape around the airport reminds me of the almost dozen times we have come in and out of this airport. The large red signs for ‘wow hotel’, and they retro typography of ‘THY Teknik’.
As we drive down the great arterial roads of istabul 10 lanes wide in all. We circle off a slip road, as I look down on to the grass verge I can see a small, but clearly ancient bridge. At one level the commitment to preservation is admirable, but the fact it has been marooned into a grass verge in the middle of a slip road of this vast motorway seems to underplay its longstanding presence.
Maybe constantine himself crossed it once, maybe the bishops contributing to the nicene-constanipolitan creed crossed this bridge, maybe republic-initiating ataturk bent over to tie his shoelace on this bridge, but here it is, no sign, just the dignity of a half-hearted preservation.
Maybe this was all some history appreciating bureaucrat could do in not having it broken apart in the rampaging pace of progress that begot the road in the first place.
I know we pass close to the bosphorous to get near to sultanhmet, but unexpectedly we come to a stop by the side of the ten lane carriage way at another hotel. We are definately not near sultanhmet.
Maybe turkish airlines have decided they are less comitted to down town tourism than they are to looking after an ailing 5ish star hotel that someone’s uncle Yuri owns.
It is not an old hotel, but it looks like it never lived up to its intent, maybe that is why the owners are brought to filling it up with turkish airlines passengers on a free layover? Maybe the trip advisor ratings make it worth it? Maybe the meagre day rate from turkish airlines are more profitable than empty rooms? Who knows.
The restaraunt where breakfast is served is a more humble state of affairs than the court yard inspired entry way. As I walk around the offerings, there are more types of white bread then I knew possible, next to mushroom soup, unidentifiable sandwich meat, and a philo pastry stuffed with eggs. Not exactly what I had in mind. after spending 13hours flying in the direction of europe from asia I had hoped for a culinary selection that felt even slightly more like home. Turkey is at least good for fresh juices, I remember a frosty december morning where we drank pomegranite juice freshly squeezed at a road-side stand. To my horror, although the fragrances register all the right notes, the orange juice tastes like blended sainsbury’s carrier bags. Off to bed to recover some sanity. But not before an unscheduled trip to find a pharmacy.
We walk down some back streets surrounded by tall unseemly tenements that look soviet inspired but built well after that era and well after architects should have known better. We enter a newsagent and attempt to start an apologetically toned conversation in english. The younger shop assistance gestures wordlessly to a much older gentlemen behind the counter. On first glance the scene seems like it would more easily be reversed and quite possibly the younger of the two was beligerently deflecting an unwanted recovery of school day language ability. At least the older gentlemen gave it his best shot, but soon we were demoted to the level of actioning. Trying to act out the word pharmacy is as tough an assignment as it sounds. Finally we arrive at mutually incomprehensible arrival point, and with great relief he exclaims the word “eczane!”. The only trouble being that until your ear is trained to hear words in another language they float away like helium balloons from the hand of a 6 year old birthday girl. We trapse off back into the early morning streets on a search. It is still early for the city and pharmacies being the life-saving, yet pedestrian places they are, once we found one we discover they do not open until 9am.
In the meantime the loo is in order. We walk past some restaraunts, too fancy, not open enough, then McDonalds. The shame of it all, we are walking towards those golden arches in the city of baklava, turkish delight and hookah pipes. Although the doors are open I don’t think I’ve ever seen a McDonalds look more closed. We only wanted a bathroom after all.
Next door a smiling near eastern face, somewhere in his 20’s looks up from vacuuming a carpet with a warm smile. We venture in and he tries to gently dissuade us from interupting his opening routine by saying they’ll be open in 10mins. We communicate the polite urgency of our need for a bathroom and his middle eastern hospitality obligations take over our interaction. Mrs B heads up to the bathroom while I make myself at home in the awkward faux red leather chair on a small plastic wood effect table. Looking around, it is clear this establishment is meant for an altogether other time of the day. Not quite a late night spot but certainly sometime after lunch. I retreat to the world of open wifi network exploration when I realise our vacuuming friend is looking across the room working up the courage to have a conversation. I can intuit this but my jet lag brain is far from getting the rest of my body to respond in a way that suits. He asks where I am from, I say the UK but living in South Africa in my best slow but not patronising pigeon english that I have been employing in taiwan for the past 3 weeks. He then asks if he can get me coffee and begins to list an array of espresso based drinks that would be bewildering if it continued so I interuppted by selecting his first offer, espresso. A small cup so we could make a move after the bathroom, and if it was truly terrible easy to throw back in one gulp. Nothing will keep me from the impending slumber that air travel exacts. “I’m not from turkey”, he proclaims as if asking a question I should have asked him in return but didn’t. “Thats why I speak english”, I ask him where he is from, “Syria” he responds. Immediately I am drawn into the conversation and long forgotten is my research into un-secure wifi networks. He is from Aleppo, I tell him we know someone from damascus. I ask him about his family, he is married. He doesn’t look old enough, but then we move on. I tell him about being in Jordan, that we have been praying for Syria, He thanks me. We jointly try and remember the name of the large camp I was near in jordan, “Zaatar”, he exclaims, although he was never there. “Turkey is better than Egypt”, He had been in egypt for 10 months before. “I have been all over Turkey, but istanbul is better for jobs.” I tell him the situation in Syria is terrible, as if he didn’t know, but you search for something that carries empathy in a world so overwhelming.
Mrs B comes back from the bathroom, he works away at the coffee bar as I regail her with my new found information on our server. Within no time he brings over a latte complete with the squiggles of milk which count as latte art. “On the house” he proudly states, we thank him, although I can tell this might be the last thing Mrs B might want but she is overcome by the gesture itself and sips away.
I suddenly realise I have no cash! We came off a flight from taiwan not 3 hours ago, I ask him if he can take credit card, he can, I ask him if I tip on a credit card will he get it, He says he won’t.
Only a single try to charge the credit card the meagre 4 turkish lira and he gives up. “4 lira is nothing!” don’t worry about it. Are we about to walk out two coffees and a conversation later without paying? There are not many places in the world this scenario seems plausible, but middle/near east hospitality reaches new heights in my estimation.
We cross four lanes of traffic at an entirely unmarked spot. “Istanbul is not pedestrian friendly” I remember reading a few hours before when researching public transport options to get back to sultanhmet and plan A. Through death-defying feats of bleary eyed travellers we make it across and into the ‘eczane’ that we had earlier learnt means pharmacy.
Earlier the shop had been dead and unlit, now it was positively transformed, with bright white led’s shining on every tiered glass shelf enlightening the way to the latest remedies for colds, skin care and allergies. Every sign was completely incomprehesible though, the allure of familiarity of the latin alphabet quickly gives way to the realisation that the combination of letter registers no similarity to any words in other languages we know. We approach the two young turkish pharmacists dressed in white coats at the counter and attempt to begin in english. No avail. We are once again brought to our figurative knees by attempt to act out our ailments but this time our amateur dramatics fail us.
One of the pharmacists decides to employ google translate on their till computer, but I can tell he is not technically oriented and our hopes fall to an older gentlemen who has taken up residence on a small stool by the counter. He obviously doesn’t work there but seems like the kind of guy who gets out just to be around people. Fortunately for us, his english is a little better, but even he is bamboozled when it comes to translating medical terms. Back to google translate which eventually brings us together in understanding and 35 lira later we walk out of the eczane. Everyone feeling a mutual sense of achievement and relief from our inter-linguistic encounter.
Its 10am, We wind our way back to the hotel and I marvel at how this little neighbourhood in Istanbul became a short term familiarity, how we found it’s banks, it’s refugees, it’s elderly, it’s pharamacists. Yesterday we were in down town Taipei and then by tomorrow we’ll be at the south western-most tip of Africa. We live in a funny world.
This post is the review of the The Tom Bihn Synapse 25, the bag I ended up buying after an obsessive two year research journey, I blogged that process here if you are interested | The Journey of picking a bag by an obsessive | Tom Bihn Synapse 25
A few months back I posted my rather obsessive journey of research that led me to buy 1 the Tom Bihn Synapse 25. I’ve now had the bag for almost 9 months and have gotten a feel for whether it was the right choice.
As in my last post, I’ll give this upfront disclaimer; if you don’t have an interest in the details of the bags you use, there is likely nothing of interest past this point. The short answer is the bag is great!
There is only Christ. He is everything and he is in everything.
I think that [Michael] Polanyi has given us a picture which accurately indicates where we are. The past 300 years, he says, have been the most brilliant in human history, but their brilliance was created by the combustion… Read More
Posted on November 1, 2015
All of us at some point or another heard the gospel, and then those of us that sought to live it out did so in particular contexts and surroundings. It is rare that someone goes through their early life in Christ in a place without a strong dominant culture. We learn to live out our Christianity in the midst of culture, and like spilling coffee into a car seat, we will never be able to fully separate them. Neither am I going to argue should we completely attempt to.
First, I should define what I mean in that controversial title by colour-blindness. I have come across this a few times, and it seems to have been a dominant theme somewhere in the 70’s and 80’s, that the way to deal with issues of race and different cultures is to, some how, pretend not to see them. I even vaguely remember a bad pop song seeking to promote this idea of colour-blindness by using the image of a melting pot.
Whilst the idea that we all have equal worth never mind where we were born, the colour of our skin, our gender, or which religion we believe in, is Godly, the denial of the existence of cultural differences and histories is deeply flawed. The narrative that props this up, gestures towards our common physiology and encourages us that somehow; take off the top layer and we are all the same and so we should treat each other as if the top layer (and its cultural implications) don’t exist.
We live in light of generational histories, we are not living in a vacuum, we are people in cultures with histories. These histories and cultures affect our lives and they should not be under appreciated. We can tell from the bible (predominantly a history book about the jewish people group) histories matter.
Cultures are important in the scripture but it should be said they are not the most meaningful thing about a person. They are though, the context in which we have to live out our faith, and living out our faith is something that God is deeply invested in. To deny our cultures removes the ‘landing place’ for heaven to come to earth and imprisons biblical commands to the place of theory.
Jesus himself had a culture. He is a 1st century palestinian jew, and despite attempts of both arianist western depictions to homogenise him into a blond haired, blue eyed image, and the reaction of black liberation theologies to cast him as the african american, he was neither. Someone once remarked that God made us in His image, and we turned around and returned the favour.
Something that may contribute to this sense of culture being a temporary cloak over our common humanity is our reading of the story of babel (found in Genesis 11). On the face of it, you could read it as people who became prideful and God judged them by giving them different languages (which essentially form the foundation of cultures). But in fact, if we read babel in light of God’s earlier word in Genesis then we realise babel was actually a rescue mission for God’s plan all along. In Genesis 9 we see God’s word to Noah and his family to be;
As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.” (Genesis 9:7 – NIV)
The Holman translation actually reads “be fruitful and multiply; spread out over the earth and multiply on it.” The tower of Babel was a work of unity to de-throne God and enthrone human ascent and pride. God’s grace was to disrupt this pride and send them out to fulfil his original mission, to extend boundaries of Eden across the earth.
In the new testament as God’s mission spread out rapidly from the jews after Jesus, and Paul’s mission to gentiles, we see the word which is often translated nations. Most people are aware that this word is actually the greek word ethnos, which we call ‘people group’, and people groups are people defined by their culture.
One of the most interesting pictures which include cultures in the bible is a beautiful picture of what is to come, in Revelation 7.
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
‘Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.’
A few times when I have been speaking in Church services in different nations, I bring this picture up. The reason I bring it up is because one of the gifts of our modern ability to travel has been to worship alongside radically different cultures. A year or so ago I was in a church service in Scotland where a psalm was read out in traditional scots, more recently we were in taiwan where songs were written by the church community and sung in taiwanese. On top of this, most weeks we get to sing songs in our church community in several languages within South Africa, as well as from Zimbabwe and Malawi. I bring this picture up when I get to speak, because we both get to see a glimpse now, and we are working for the day when we will see and hear it in full.
This is a gift because God loves cultures. The thing to notice is at the end of history when God has gathered up the nations, or ‘ethnos’, He does not boil them down in his melting pot, He gathers them as the nations. I think you can go as far to say that part of the beauty and glory of this image is that it is the nations gathered. It is something about this diversity singing to the King in unity that is beautiful. God wants us all to gather and worship Him, and the beauty is that we are not made into nothing as we do it, but we keep our individual and group identities.
And so, this brings me to the second part of the title ‘Kingdom Culture’ or as follows the title of the band, ‘Jesus Culture’. Well, I hope I’ve shown so far that Jesus’ actual culture was 1st century jewish Palestinian, and I don’t think this is what anyone is meaning when they reference the idea of Jesus culture.
I want to charitable towards this language. I have used it in the past and I understand the impulse to bring Jesus’ life into the present and encourage our emulation of his life. But it trips us up in some important ways we need to pay attention to.
What I think people are reaching for when using this language is, what are the values that Jesus lived by and are coherent to the Kingdom he was announcing. So far, so good. But values are theoretical, take for example, generosity. What does generosity look like? You will find as many answers as you do people. There is not a Law in the scriptures about generosity, not at least in the new testament, but a great and high value for it.
We have been invited into a new way of living. A way forward that involves our attentiveness to the scriptures in the presence of Holy Spirit who leads our responses of spontaneous holiness. Not, even though we might prefer it, a single, ‘one-size-fits-all’ command and explanation for how to live that out. That was the pet-project of the pharisees and something we must be attentive not to re-produce.
We have both the benefit and the challenge of living in a community of many cultures; european, north american, black and white south african, and the many sub-sets of each of those broader categories. Often this ‘kingdom culture’ language comes out at a exacerbated moment of cultural tension. An attempt to appeal to a common centering point in the rough seas of inter-cultural communication. Interestingly the issue that the person claims to be ‘Kingdom Culture’ seems like their own culture, baptised with the name ‘Kingdom Culture’.
Northern Europeans (like me), tend to claim that timeliness and being true to your word is kingdom culture. North Americans claim that honest-talk, stating things ‘as they are’ is kingdom culture. Black African’s talk about open house generosity as Kingdom culture. In part, I think they are all right. But the problem is, we are identifying values and then claiming the way our cultures lives those values are more like Jesus than another culture. They are in essence complaining that there is A way rather than many ways to honour and witness to God’s Kingdom made more beautiful by the multitude of ways cultures can express Gods life made manifest on earth.
Here is my main point, Jesus shows us values, but the values get enfleshed, just as He was, in a culture, and the shape of the enflesh-ing will be different according to culture. This is not troublesome, this is the Glory of God manifest amongst the nations. Our cultures are not boiled down at the end of time, they are a feature of the foundational promise to our forefathers of faith that we would spread out and populate the earth, and God continues to allow them to act like the edges of diamond refracting his light in multitude and beauty.
Posted on October 25, 2015
I’ve been thinking about witchcraft a lot recently. Whilst in the west witchcraft is confined to images conjured by the opening scenes of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or the sensationalist renderings of foreign cultures generated by national geographic cover photos, the reality of witchcraft as a Spiritual and social phenomena in Africa is undeniable.
Recently an African bible teacher came to our community unpacking his perspective on animism (the worship of ancestors) and witchcraft in South Africa. It got me thinking about how witchcraft functions in Africa; the function that witchcraft provides (and it’s counter-part witch-doctor – the white magic which heals the black magic) is to solve spiritual insecurity.